Senators Make Poor Presidential Candidates

by Will on March 12, 2013

Senator Henry Clay: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

In following horse-race political reporting, I notice a lot of discussion of senators as possible presidential candidates. For instance, freshman senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz are often mentioned these days as likely candidates in 2016.  This strikes me as peculiar, given that there are few examples of sitting senators succeeding in presidential contests.

Only four sitting senators have ever won election to the presidency. These were Franklin Peirce, Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and the current president. Every other candidate to win the presidency had served as either a governor, a general, a prominent secretary in the cabinet, or vice president, with the anomalous exceptions of Lincoln and Garfield, whose highest office was the house of representatives.

In each of these four cases, the candidate won under unusual circumstances. Peirce ran virtually unopposed, as the national Whig party had dissolved and its candidate had no prayer of winning. Harding’s opponent was a mere congressman (from Harding’s home state of Ohio, mooting any “favorite son” support he might have received). Moreover, Wilson had thoroughly ruined the reputation of the Democratic party, much as George W. Bush would later do for the Republicans. Kennedy’s margin of victory was extremely narrow, and probably depended on electoral fraud in Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Obama was running against another senator, so the public was going to be stuck with a senator no matter who they voted for (this was also true in the Democratic primary). Give the people a decent choice, I contend, and they will reject the senator every time. The list of failed senator candidates for president is considerable: Henry Clay (twice), John C. Fremont, John Breckinridge, Stephen Douglas, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain. Senators rarely even win their party’s nomination.*

Why is this? I think it’s easy enough to explain. People reasonably prefer a candidate who has leadership experience. Senators don’t have the responsibility that someone running a state, or a military unit, or a department would show themselves to have. Another likely reason is that senators have a paper trail on all national issues of recent controversy. Executive and military figures can often steer clear of such debates and take vague, ambiguous positions when they must take any. Senators, however, have to vote. One-time senators who serve in the cabinet or as vice president can redeem themselves, because they have years in which to form a public identity independent of their senate careers. Sitting senators have no such luxury. Lastly, the senate is a ridiculous institution. More than any other part of the government, it tends to attract pompous, self-important, ludicrous individuals. Its members are also all ridiculously rich. Since the most popular campaign tactic in American politics, going back to 1828 if not 1800, has been to portray one’s opponent as an aloof, out-of-touch aristocrat, most senators’ personality and lifestyle make them sitting ducks.

In short, it is unlikely that any sitting senator will be a presidential candidate in 2016. More likely, the two parties’ candidates will come from statehouses, from cabinet positions, or from the higher ranks of the military.

*Diplomats, justices, and businessmen have had an even worse showing. Non-officer veterans are another notably overrated category.

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